In the Name of the Fathers


In the name of the fathers


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Dads take custody cases to Strasbourg to fight what they say are biased courts

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Staff Writer, The Prague Post
August 22nd, 2007  




Peter Nymburg says he didn’t have a problem when his wife left him for another man, on Christmas Day 2005. 


It was the next bombshell that sent him spiraling: She intended to fight for sole custody of their three children.


“When my wife told me I had no chance for joint custody, I really didn’t believe her,” says Nymburg, a Czech citizen raised in Germany but now living in south Bohemia. “I thought the [custody] rules would be the same as in the rest of Europe.”


But the ensuing drama shows she may have been right, and raises questions about how courts handle custody cases. Within weeks of their separation, the couple was in court and Nymburg’s wife was awarded custody.


“Only she was heard, I had no chance to say anything,” Nymburg, 41, says of the proceedings.


The judge ruled Nymburg could have the children every other weekend.


“I felt like dying,” he says.


When he kept going back to court to seek a change in the arrangement, the judge kept saying he couldn’t see the problem, according to Nymburg.


“He really cannot understand that I want to raise them, not just see them from time to time,” he says.


Exasperated with the local courts, Nymburg took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, in April. No decision has yet been made and Nymburg says he doesn’t know when to expect one.


 Jiří Fiala says his frustration with domestic courts also drove him to Strasbourg.



“If the father wants something, they don’t listen,” says Fiala, who lives about an hour outside of Prague.


Fiala, 44, was among the first group of Czech fathers to go to Strasbourg, in 2003.


In August 2006, the human rights court ruled that the local courts had moved too slowly in his case, violated his right to a family life and did not adequately protect him when his ex-wife refused to grant his agreed-upon visits.


“The state authorities should have taken an action which would force the mother to follow the agreement,” the Strasbourg decision reads.


Fiala is now seeking compensation from the government.


He remembers one episode with particular bitterness. Per his agreement with his ex-wife, he took one of his sons for the weekend. He brought the boy back Monday and was arrested on a charge of kidnapping. He spent the next month in jail.


All of this didn’t look so good for his job as a foreign trader, which he says he lost as a result of the imprisonment (he was never convicted of the crime) and of the amount of time he had to spend in court over custody issues.


On the other hand, his wife was not arrested when she violated the terms of the agreement, he says. “These crimes were not seen,” he says.


Gender roles


Kateřina Preiningerová, a Prague lawyer who works with divorce and custody cases, says that in her experience mothers tend to get custody about 80 percent of the time. The reason, she says, is because most judges are women.


Luboš Patera, of the fathers’ rights group Justice for Children, shares that view. Since most of the judges deciding these cases are women, he says, “they can picture themselves in that position.”


But Radima Dudová, a sociologist at the Institute of Sociology who specializes in the effects of divorce on the family, disagrees.


It’s not the gender of the judge that matters as much as attitudes — held by both men and women — about the roles of mothers and fathers, she says.


“Certainly, there is this opinion that the mother is more important for the children than the father,” Dudová says. “The notion is that the father is important for discipline but it is not important that he is present.”


Zuzana Kuncová, a spokeswoman for the Justice Ministry, says that 1,861 of the country’s 3,004 judges are women and that the ministry does not keep a record as to how many deal with custody issues. All who do, however, are trained regularly, she says.


The favoritism toward mothers, according to Nymburg and Fiala, shows fathers are undervalued in society.


“Generally, fathers and men are seen as second- and even third-class citizens,” Fiala says.


He says part of this is a leftover attitude from communism, in which destabilized families were convenient for those in power. “A destroyed society is much easier to deal with,” he says.


Dudová says that, in general, Czechs see it as normal that the mother would have full custody. In fact, most couples come to court already having agreed that the mother should have full custody, she says.


“Everybody would say here that it is normal that the kids would stay with the mother. … The judges don’t even think about it,” she says.


Part of the reason for this is that joint custody carries a stigma for women. Joint, or alternate custody, only became legal here in 2002, Dudová says. Before that, custody was only awarded to the father if the mother was “alcoholic or crazy or something,” she says.


Although in practice custody usually goes to mothers, by law both parents have equal rights.


“The laws are not bad, but they are not used well, because they are interpreted by imperfect people,” Patera says. “The heart of the matter lies not in the law but in the way it is enforced.”


In the process, Kuncová says, “children are … taken hostage by their parents in their private war.”


Although Fiala won the battle in court, he seems to have lost the war.


“I do not see them,” he says of his two teenage sons after visits became impossible when his sons, too, turned against him. “I have not seen them for three or four years. And they just grow without a father, which is a pity.”


He is still trying, after six years, to gain custody and imagines how life would be different.


“Very often I think about them. Sometimes I imagine they are with me,” he says.


— Hela Balínová and Naďa Černá contributed to this report.




Kimberly Ashton can be reached at Tato e-mailová adresa je chráněna před spamboty. Pro její zobrazení musíte mít povolen Javascript.